The recent withdrawal of nearly all container shipping at the Port of Portland has forced businesses throughout Oregon to choose between paying more for exports or risk losing customers overseas.
State officials are now asking what they can do to help.
Business Oregon, the official state agency for economic development, is leading a series of workshops to brainstorm solutions while the Port of Portland attempts to recruit another container shipper to Terminal 6.
More than 100 people attended the first Oregon Trade Solutions workshop last week in Portland. The series shifts to Eastern Oregon today with a meeting in Hermiston.
Ryan Frank, spokesman for Business Oregon, said the initiative started earlier this year when Hanjin Shipping and Hapag-Lloyd stopped making stops in Portland, taking the vast majority of the port’s container business with them.
Oregon shippers now pay an additional $500 to $1,000 per container to send their goods to Seattle and Tacoma. Not only is the freight more expensive, but it has also led to congestion along the other West Coast ports.
Gov. Kate Brown announced a deal in April providing $300,000 to help small- and medium-sized businesses stay competitive in the export market. The goal is to deliver a list of solutions to lawmakers for the 2016 Legislature.
The workshops are co-sponsored by Business Oregon along with the state Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and Port of Portland.
“We want to hear from private industry to tell us what they need,” Frank said. “The best solutions are going to come from people who live and breathe this business every day.”
Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said the team was interested in visiting Hermiston based on the region’s vibrant farm economy.
Umatilla County ranks first in the state for growing fresh vegetables that are shipped in containers, mostly potatoes and onions. Processed and packaged foods, such as french fries from the Lamb Weston potato plant, are also moved in containers.
Wheat, on the other hand, is exported in bulk and not affected by Terminal 6.
In all, about 40 percent of Oregon agriculture is exported out of the country, Pokarney said. With the added cost per container, that’s hitting a lot of small growers in the pocketbook.
“There are ideas out there that we at the state level could certainly be advocates for,” Pokarney said.
Input at the Portland meeting included possibly building a drop yard near Corvallis, where containers could be transferred off trucks and onto rail, saving businesses trucking costs. Companies also proposed a website where the state and local ports could communicate shipping delays in real time.
At the Port of Umatilla, manager Kim Puzey has spent more than a decade looking into short sea shipping on the Columbia River, which would allow inland ports to bypass Portland entirely. So far, Puzey said he has not been able to find funding for the proposal.
“I think it has merits. Europe and Asia seem to think so, and I haven’t given up on the idea,” he said.
More than 1,000 Oregon businesses rely on container shipping for imports and exports, totaling $101 million in revenue, according to figures from Business Oregon. Frank said there’s a whole range of potential solutions that can come out of the workshops.
“A lot of companies are doing really any workaround to get their product where it needs to go,” Frank said. “Sometimes they’ll pay the extra cost to ship to other ports, and are more or less eating those costs. … That’s not really a long-term sustainable solution.”
Meanwhile, the Port of Portland is continuing to work with Terminal 6 operator ICTSI Oregon to restore container service, though port spokesman Kenny Macdonald said bringing in a company the size of Hanjin might take several years.
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